In our work with land-based social enterprises, we often hear about the value of networks. To develop the sector, organisations need to make connections, promote their work and learn from each other. Many also need to grow supply chains and customer bases to be sustainable. This blog explores the role of networks in the sector, and argues for a broader ‘joined up’ approach across it.
The value of networks to land-based social enterprises:
The value of networks is already clear to many observers of the land-based social enterprise sector. Making Local Food Work identified cultivating networks as one of the most important paths to financial sustainability, whilst Friends of the Earth reported the benefits of local and national food networks across Europe. Networks are useful where they provide access to things that members would otherwise find it difficult to obtain. The following are some of the key services offered by networks of land-based social enterprises:
- Information and learning: Networks enable enterprises to learn about how to develop their organisations sustainably. One way is through pooling expertise. Networks can make it easier to access expert technical and professional knowledge that makes it possible to acquire and manage land. Another is peer support. Organisations we work with describe how valuable it is to meet people who have been through similar processes to them, and to learn from others’ successes and failures. This also provides new enterprises with ‘possibility models’ that show what can be achieved. Finally, networks can crowdsource, commission, or signpost, to other information that can help enterprises. These services can help increase members’ land management skills, and their knowledge of strategic and policy issues.
- Business support: To operate sustainably, land-based businesses often require networks connecting them to landowners, consumers and/or other producers. For individual enterprises, often in remote areas or producing only small amounts of produce, it is difficult if not impossible to build a market without them. Networks can provide business support, ranging from the sharing of tools, to collective insurance, to the creation of new marketplaces.
On a local scale, networks can have a multiplier effect which benefits all the producers, or even the whole community, a concept that sits at the heart of the Transition networks. On a wider scale, networks can unite around common interests or business models, and help scale innovative approaches.
Networks can also help join several organisations together to take on larger contracts. ACEVO recently published a report on how ‘alliance contracting’ can enable networks of community groups to take on health services. Similar models are certainly possible for large land management contracts. Having a network to establish and manage the partnerships can be especially useful as individual members may be unable to, or uninterested in, taking on the administrative responsibilities required.
- Campaigning and Advocacy: When land-based social enterprises join together, the sum of their voices is louder than its parts. Some networks, such as Care Farming UK, are set up with the express goal of providing a voice to their members and promoting the work they do. Other networks, such as The Landworkers’ Alliance, enable members to pursue ‘bigger picture’ goals, sometimes joining with other organisations to launch national, or even international, campaigns.
In recent years, the internet has further expanded the potential of networks. It provides easy ways to collect and distribute information, recruit and communicate with members, celebrate and talk about projects, and offers new marketplaces. For example, within food production, Landshare.net provides an easy way for landowners and growers to connect, Foodtrade links producers with consumers, and DE4 Food connects various local producers in a shared marketplace. Project Dirt has enabled a wide range of community organisations to connect with others in their areas. However, networks still face a number of issues.
Issues facing networks
One problem is that the energy that comes with setting up social enterprises and networks is hard to channel into more administrative tasks in the long term. While individual social enterprises may have a lot to gain from participation in a network, these activities are probably not why they started their organisations in the first place. This means that if they are successful, many networks will eventually need paid staff who have time dedicated to managing the network. It also underscores the importance of making participation in a network not just useful, but also interesting and fun. Incredible Edible Lambeth, for example, turn their AGM into a feast of local food.
Like other organisations working with land, networks may struggle to develop sustainable funding models. As with social enterprise in general, the most sustainable models can be the ones that support themselves through generating revenue. For many networks, this comes from member donations or fees. Other sources include certification, such as Social Enterprise UK’s ‘social enterprise mark’, selling branded products, or taking a commission on members’ sales. Making Local Food Work published useful guidance on how to cultivate networks, covering different funding and operational models based on a network’s goals.
It is also worth noting where networks do not meet their members needs. Land-based social enterprises we have worked with have described some networks focusing too much on ‘expert’, rather than ‘on the ground’, knowledge. Networks can also be seen as an extra layer of bureaucracy, taking up time that the enterprises don’t have to spare. To avoid this situation, it is crucial that networks have a clear purpose based on the expressed needs of those they are helping.
Joining up the Land Sector
There are many networks that support various types of land-based social enterprise, but we think that the sector suffers from a lack of joining up across this diversity. Most networks are set up to support specific models such as food growing or renewable energy production. Yet through our policy programme, we are increasingly learning, and trying to demonstrate, that different sub-sectors face many similar issues. We hope to draw links between networks to enable them to better support their members and other land-based social enterprises. We also think that, through working together, these networks could identify and campaign for policy changes that could facilitate many kinds of land-based social enterprise.
Please get in touch with any thoughts on this issue or any of the other areas we are looking at. The next blog looks at difficulties with developing sustainable business models. Previous blogs in the series are available here.